An American start-up can make a molecular copy of any fine wine. Does it pass muster?
Source: The Times
The fake wine taste test
Michel Roux Jr is not in agreement with the two sommeliers at the table. They’re all perching on a humongous leather sofa, each with two glasses before them. One — they don’t know which — contains a splash of 2017 Far Niente, a highly regarded chardonnay from California’s Napa Valley that retails online for about $US70 a bottle. The other glass contains what you might call an homage or, less charitably, a knock-off — a pirate wine created by a team of renegade vintners who analysed the molecular composition of Far Niente and used this data to create a high-quality, low-cost copy. The facsimile wine, called Retrofit, sells for $20 in the US.
Roux, a chef and restaurateur who runs the two-Michelin-star Le Gavroche in London’s Mayfair, thinks that glass Number 2 contains the real Far Niente. Sommelier Alexandra Badoi disagrees: Number 1 is the better wine, she says, with more body and biscuityness — so surely it’s the original? Monica Galetti, a British MasterChef judge, and her sommelier husband, David, sip carefully. With its superior complexity, structure and density, Number 1 is the original, David declares. “They’re very close,” Monica murmurs as she sips each in turn and then picks Number 2. She’s not sure that she approves of the ethics of the people who make Retrofit — exploiting somebody else’s hard work is bad form, she says. “But I think they’re going to have a great time confusing the public.”
The two sommeliers in this blind tasting were certainly fooled. In fact, Number 1 is the copy.
Six thousand kilometres away, in Colorado, I imagine Ari Walker chuckling to himself. Walker is the man behind Replica Wine, the outfit that produces Retrofit and a stable of other copycats. He insists he gets no satisfaction from embarrassing professional wine tasters, something he achieves on a regular basis. “But we do deliver the flavours that consumers already love, at a fraction of the price.” His company is part of a nascent trend in “molecular” wine and spirits manufacturing, based on the notion that a convincing replica of any drink can be concocted from scratch.
San Francisco company Endless West makes a “molecular whiskey” — sourcing its flavour and aroma molecules directly from plants and yeasts, rather than from distillation and ageing, to create a product that’s “biochemically equivalent to the finest aged whiskies” — and the idea for the replica wine came after one of its founders, Mardonn Chua, took a tour of Napa Valley wineries and saw a bottle of 1973 Chateau Montelena chardonnay on display. In 1976 this was the vintage that won the famous “Judgment of Paris” blind tasting — a shootout between US and French wines that unexpectedly saw the Americans win. There are only a few bottles left and they fetch astronomical prices. It was a shame, Chua thought as he gazed at one of them locked away in a glass case, that nobody would get to taste it.
On the bus ride home, though, he decided that perhaps they could. He could make any wine, he reasoned. Alec Lee, Endless West’s CEO, sketches out the rationale: “If you take away the history and the marketing and all that, it’s a collection of molecules — mostly water and alcohols and sugars and acids,” he says. “I have a lab. If I can figure out what each of these molecules is, I should be able to quantify them. If I can source each one of them independently, I should be able to mix them back together again, like the pixels of a photograph.”
The process, he argues, has the potential to be vastly more efficient than traditional distilling and winemaking. Years of cellaring could be sidestepped. Carbon dioxide emissions and the use of land, water and pesticides might be slashed.
Ari Walker is less of a molecular fundamentalist. He doesn’t argue that a wine can be duplicated with perfect accuracy. Instead, he is in the business of “improving” cheap base wine in the lab. “We’re not trying to hit a bullet with a bullet,” he says. But he’s betting that if he can get 90 per cent of the way to a famous label and sell the result for, say, 30 per cent of the price, customers will snap it up.
Today, it’s likely that Walker possesses the largest library of molecular reports on individual wines. Scientists at his lab, Ellipse Analytics, have broken down the composition of thousands from around the world. He can tell you precisely which acids and sugars are responsible for producing the taste, aroma and “mouthfeel” of your favourite pinot. He knows which esters make your sauvignon blanc smell like grapefruit and gooseberry, which sulphites have been used to inhibit the growth of rogue wild yeasts. He can say which tannins are reacting with the proteins in your saliva to produce the tactile astringency of your go-to house red. He also sees which additives have been used to bolster mainstream brands — those, for instance, that go heavy on “Mega Purple”, a concentrated grape gloop used to deepen colour.
Unsurprisingly, not everyone warms to Replica’s sales pitch. The Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, a newspaper in California regarded as speaking for the state’s wine industry, denounced its offerings as “Frankenstein wines”. During our tasting, Michel Roux Jr also has misgivings. He wouldn’t buy a knock-off Rolex from a street market, he says, so why would he buy a facsimile wine?
Walker, for his part, seems more amused than frustrated when he contemplates the pushback he’s had. And he points out that, except for the detailed molecular analysis of the target wines, he doesn’t use any techniques that haven’t been commonplace for decades. “There is no voodoo with what we are creating — we’re just a top-notch team making great wines at reasonable prices,” says Brett Zimmerman, Replica’s sommelier, who has the final say on what goes into the bottle.
Most wine is mass-produced. The art of large-scale winemaking is to coax the fruit to produce a nice wine and to even out lacklustre vintages. This may involve judicious blending and using a wide range of approved additives. This is what Replica does. Moreover, winemakers have long set out to duplicate the flavours of the top-selling and acclaimed brands — they’d be idiots not to in a competitive $250 billion market. There is an established network of labs that, in addition to ensuring wines are stable and clean, also help producers to shape them to mesh with consumer tastes. What’s unique about the people behind Replica, it seems, is that they openly admit to such techniques.
But there are limits, says Walker. Some brands, he believes, are all but impossible to mimic convincingly; he would also struggle to reproduce a very fine individual Bordeaux, the character of which intimately reflects the terroir of the vineyard. “I am enough of a traditionalist to believe that there are certain terroirs or microclimates that really do come through, and which are very challenging to replicate,” he says.
Our blind tests also suggest Replica’s whites are more successful than its reds. “They’ve done a good job with the whites,” says Roux. “With the reds, I think they’re way off. But who knows? With a bit of work, maybe they’ll get there.”
What will the future hold for the molecular movement? Lee, Endless West’s CEO, likens it to the invention of electronic music: traditionalists initially dismissed its merits while the masses embraced it. Today, you can adore both electronica and Bach. Technology made music of all genres more accessible, he adds. Little more than a century ago, if you wanted to hear the world’s finest soprano you had to travel to see her in person. Today, you click on YouTube. Lee sees a future in which reproductions make legendary, rare wines and spirits similarly obtainable.